Alaska's drug-crime link needs legislative attention

Posted: Sunday, February 19, 2006

Ketchikan has been Alaska's First City since the Days of '98. It was the first point travelers to Alaska landed on their way north. Many stayed, prospected, logged, fished, trapped or waited on those who did. However, since they put holding tanks on aircraft, many take direct flights north from the Lower 48. But not to worry, Ketchikan is still first in some things.

Take the new book by Anchorage editor and author Tom Brennan, "Cold Crimes; How Police Detectives Solved Alaska's Most Shocking Crimes." The first story in the book, "Ketchikan Burning," is about the arson fires set by fire department Lt. William Henry Mitchell. In Ketchikan it was very important to use Lt. Mitchell's full name because there were four William (Bill) Mitchells in Ketchikan at the same time. One was a respected businessman and member of the City Council.

Lt. Mitchell was respected until suspected. He was active in community organizations and ran a retail store owned by his parents, so he was also a local businessman. But between 1956 and 1961, he set fires that destroyed at least four blocks of downtown Ketchikan.

Brennan is an editor for the Anchorage Times page in the Anchorage Daily News and author of "Moose Droppings & Other Crimes Against Nature," and "Murder at 40 Below." He and his wife came to Alaska 39 years ago. He worked as a reporter and in the oil industry before joining the Times page. His latest book, which reports on 13 bizarre crimes in Alaska, is available at Alaska bookstores or from

What he needs to do next is write a book about the unsolved bizarre crimes. It was just 20 years ago that a 24-year-old Bellingham fisherman, John Kenneth Peel, was on trial in Ketchikan. He was charged with killing eight people and seeking to hide the crime by burning their seine boat, the Investor, at Craig at the end of the 1982 fishing season. A hung jury resulted in a retrial in Juneau where Peel was found not guilty.

That means is that someone, probably high on drugs, murdered skipper Mark Coulthurst and seven others and walked away from it.

Craig came in for a little more publicity this month when a Juneau jury split 10-2 in favor of acquitting Rachelle Waterman of complicity in the murder of her mother. The hung jury means that Judge Patricia Collins who will decide by mid-March on whether to retry 17-year-old Waterman or drop the case. At least this time the state has the two men who admitted killing Lauri Waterman.

Now, with holding tanks on airplanes, everything except the state capital has moved to the west and Anchorage has the dubious honor of being the First City of Crime. Ketchikan and Craig won't object.

Brennan's book supports Anchorage's title by describing the "Deadly Dentist," the "Cab Driver Killer," the "Cold-Hearted Undertaker" and "Alaska's Billy the Kid." There also is the famous case involving a prominent Anchorage attorney whose ex-wife was killed with a car bomb and her brother, an Alaska Airlines pilot, gunned down by hired killers.

Although eight died at Craig on the Investor, Gary Zeiger of Anchorage topped that, according to Brennan. Investigators estimate that he killed more than a dozen people and died violently before he reached 21, just like the infamous Billy the Kid.

Most of the cases involved drug dealers, drug users or drug abusers at some point, which makes it difficult to understand the Legislature's reluctance to tighten up on drug laws, such as proposed in committee substitute for HB 149, now stuck in conference committee. The bill, aimed at meth production and use, originated in the House. The Senate added a section making marijuana possession a crime, to which some lawmakers balked, putting the bill in a conference.

Under Alaska law, possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana in a home is allowed. That came after a 1975 Alaska Supreme Court decision that the state's constitutional right to privacy protects a person possessing small amounts of marijuana. The Legislature defined that small amount in 1982 as up to 4 ounces. Alaskans voted in 1990 to recriminalize possession of marijuana but the Court of Appeals ruled that prosecuting Alaskans for possession of the drug is unconstitutional.

One group seeks to legalize marijuana use in Alaska and another group and the state administration oppose, citing that marijuana used in Alaska today is more dangerous than that used in 1975.

A stronger argument, and one bolstered by reading police blotters as Brennan did for his book, is that many in the criminal element hold few legitimate jobs because of drug use, and need money to survive. They grow or import marijuana they sell for $1,000 to $2,000 for 4 ounces. Like the United States going after terrorists' bank accounts to starve them out, it is appropriate to go after the sources of drug dealers' funds, which includes sales and use of marijuana as well as the more deadly methamphetamine.

Alaska also flies many of its criminals in an executive jet to and from sunny Arizona, where they serve their time. The Legislature might consider a new prison in rural Alaska, or at "Nowhere," for example. Its 13 feet of rain a year might wash off sins, reducing repeat offenses.

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